when you work at a science museum and you finally get the new animal you’ve been asking for to expand your demonstrations.
And you come up with an amazing name only to have it vetoed because its the same name as a local strip club.
And you come up with an amazing name only to have it vetoed because its the same name as a local strip club.
"We have a bajillion trillion LEGO bricks that were used for the LEGO exhibit and then "donated" (aka left behind) at the Museum because they weigh too much to ship anywhere and can’t be used for anything, but they aren’t worth accessioning. So they were "gifted" to Family Programs, now taking up real esate in my program storage space. I’m not allowed to sell them or give them away because of the relationship the Museum has with the group that supplied them. So they’re sitting there. Taking up lots of space. Lots of it.
WYWAAM… you have to be clever to negotiate Museum relationships and clever enough to still get what you want.”
When you ask a visitor to please stop touching the impressionist paintings and their response is “Wait…These are real?!?!”
When your family-themed museum’s Facebook page gets hacked and fills your fan’s feeds with porn instead of the normal cutesy cartoons.
But it happens on a Friday afternoon and no one will be able to take care of it until Monday, so you spend the weekend like
When you spend months trying to develop programming for a collaborative event, but with almost no guidelines whatsoever. And when everything you were told to plan ends up being wrong, it feels just like:
Halfway through his lecture, the visiting scholar announces to the several hundred people in the audience that he has diarrhea and will be back in a little while, then runs off stage.
And the audience is like:
And I’m like:
And the interns are like:
A couple of months ago, I asked you guys to help me crowd-source a museum-career-advice column. Several times a week, I get emails from people who want to work in a museum asking me how to get their foot in the door, or how to succeed in a museum career, so I thought a crowd-sourced advice column would be helpful, so now when I get asked the question I can just point to this link. And then you all gave some really great responses, and I read them all, and then I wrote the start of this piece and then abandoned it for two months because, well, I should not be dispensing advice about anything at all. Not even directions to the nearest Starbucks. It’s not because I hate my job, or because I struggle in this field. It’s because, upon reading all the responses when I asked for reader contributions to this topic, I saw a lot of consistency in how people got into the field and I share almost none of that experience. I took a really non-traditional path and may not be the best person to disseminate advice on how to get started. I have a BFA, MFA and I’m ABD, but none of my degrees are museum-specific. What I can stand in for is an example of how diverse but related fields of expertise can qualify you for a museum career. The rest is drawn from reader responses.
Also, this is probably geared toward US museums. I don’t know enough about international museum operations to say how much of this is cromulent to them. If you’re at a museum outside of the US and want to comment on that, please do, or send me an email.
A museum career is simultaneously one of the most rewarding and frustrating endeavors you’ll ever undertake. There’s a lot of competition for a limited pool of jobs, the compensation tends to be “not great,” the hours can be killer and you’re going to end up working when you’d rather be with your friends or family. I first wanted to work in a museum when my parents bought me this VHS tape when I was 7, and I watched it over and over and over until the tape “took a nap.” My whole life plan was SET. I was going to work in a MUSEUM.
Fast forward 15 years, and I come to realize, it’s nothing like Sesame St. said it would be . Or Indiana Jones. Or The Mummy. Or The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
Truth is, it’s really hard work, and almost completely unglamorous. But damn, guys, when you see that light turn on in someone’s eyes when they really connect with an artwork, or come to a moment of clarity with history or the universe, there’s just nothing like it. Worth the blood, sweat and tears. (By the way, you will be bleeding, sweating and crying more than your position description lets on. True fact.)
I have been working in museums for about 10 years, but do not have a Museum Studies degree. I started with a BFA double major of studio art and art history, picked up a teaching certificate, followed by an MFA in Cinema Studies, followed by an (incomplete) Art History PhD program, with the goal of a being a contemporary art curator (obviously). I also took summer classes every year to accelerate my graduation date and did this all in 6 years, no breaks, while also working part time as a special education teacher. Putting myself through that pacing was the biggest mistake of my life, for two reasons.
I burned out. Badly. Terribly. To the brink of an emotional breakdown and the nuclear destruction of a long-term relationship. To run through higher education at an accelerated pace from undergrad to PhD is incredibly hard, astoundingly expensive, and rife with uncertainty, it’s definitely not for everyone, and it came with financial and emotional costs. If you listen to nothing else I say, listen to this: think long and hard about if and how you can handle that. It’s no joke.
I was doing what I was told I needed to do academically to get the job I wanted (curator), but had no actual experience doing that job to know if I’d be happy in the field. In hindsight, I needed to take more time between my MFA and PhD to focus on family and relationships, intern more, get some work experience under my belt, and figure out if I was one the right path. (I wasn’t.)
In the end, I took a sabbatical to get my head right and get some work experience. That was almost 10 years ago, and I’m still ABD. In between I accidentally landed a dream job in an aspect of museums I didn’t know I wanted, got married, and moved to the suburbs. I doubt I will ever finish that PhD. Do I want to? Kinda, I guess. Do I need to finish that degree so I can land a museum job? Nope.
Why not? Sheer luck, dude.
During my sabbatical, I got an entry-level job at a renowned museum, working in educational programming. As I mentioned, I used to be a special education teacher. My thing was teaching through alternative methods of material introduction (to wit, not teaching from the book). Within a month I knew I wasn’t going back: I wanted to create learning and engagement opportunities with these primary sources I was immersed in every day, not write books or catalogues or lectures about them. I was a teacher, and I loved it, but I was convinced I wanted to be a curator. Turns out I didn’t, because I didn’t realize I could combine my love of education with my knowledge of art in another way. Within a year, I’d been promoted twice and within two years, I had a position at one of the most well-known museums in the world.
How? I was lucky, I was book-smart, and I worked my ass off. But I was also, for the first time, doing what I wanted to do, and I decided that a PhD program wasn’t what I wanted. Your mileage may vary, and going from undergrad to PhD might be the right move for you. It wasn’t for me. Your Mileage is Going to Vary. I can’t emphasize that enough. With that caveat in place, let’s get on to the advice.
I decided to crowdsource this post, since my experience in breaking into the field is somewhat unique. So I asked tumblr and facebook –check out the threads for all the context and full narratives. I’ll condense them as best I can here in the rest of these points.
1. Decide if this is the life for you.
As I mentioned above, you’re not gonna get rich in a museum. You can make a decent and comfortable life, but there are Ramen Years. As with any field, if you’re paying your own way, you have to make a decision about how much student loan debt you can live with. Think about that long and hard, then go get as many grants and scholarships as you can if you decide to push ahead in education.
You will need a Bachelor’s degree, and most likely a Master’s degree. A PhD will make you more competitive in some areas (curatorial work, of course) but be wasted in others (you’re not going to need a PhD if you’re interested in exhibit design). Be ready to give up 1 (or all) of your weekends every month. Museum careers are rarely a flat 9-5 position. There’s late nights and weekends, and many holidays, too. You’re going to miss some time with your family and friends during those holidays and weekends and evenings. Not all, but some. Can you deal with that? I’ve seen a lot of people leave this field because it took too much time away from their personal lives, so this needs to be something you can handle.
2. Volunteer and Intern, and do it in different places. Then do it again.
Volunteering and interning are invaluable ways to network, experience different behind-the-scenes job functions, and evaluate the type of museum you enjoy working at.
The museum I work at loves to hire interns - if you’ve interned with us, you’ve already been trained on how we do things. I hesitate to call them auditions, but it’s close. But that’s a 2 way street. You’re interviewing your future here. Look at these environments critically, and carefully. If you’re unhappy, uninspired, unchallenged in an internship, put that experience in your lessons-learned bucket and try another museum. Try an art museum. Try a historic house. Try a science museum. Note what they do the same and how they differ, not just in terms of collections and exhibitions but in how they reach out to visitors, and what their mission statements are.
If internships are not available, volunteer. Museums of all kinds, in all places, pretty much always need volunteers. Much like an internship, you can try out different aspects of the field before choosing one to focus on. Even if a position does not open up at the museum you’re volunteering/interning with, you can make connections within the industry who will refer you to job opportunities, and write you letters of recommendation. A reference from a friend at another museum goes a long way with me - I pay attention to those as much as I do to your resume. Build up that contact list and stay in touch with the people you meet along the way. Interning and volunteering will not guarantee you a job, but it will help position you to be qualified for the field, and make the connections you’ll need to find a job.
3. Be flexible about location and the type of museum you work at.
Maybe your first job will be at MoMA or the Smithsonian. If so, congrats! I got lucky and was able to get an entry-level job at a well-known place and work my way up. But more likely than not, you’re going to start in a museum that you never heard of. The competition for the Big Name Museums is fierce, and jobs there do not grow on trees. A small museum that you’ve never heard of can still have a rich and vibrant collection, and be an important part of the community. Don’t overlook them. That said, taking a job at that museum may require you to move to Bumbelch, Nebrahoma to be registrar at the Museum of Dolls that Haunt Your Childhood Nightmares. Or the Clock Museum, or the Shoe Museum or something equally eclectic. Be ready to be open to that possibility, and the possibility that you may move repeatedly and frequently. Often museum jobs are temporary/term, lasting 6 months to 3 years. You may pack up and move multiple times before finding a long-term match. You may find yourself working in a city where you know no one in a state where you’ve never been. For some, that’s an appealing adventure. Others might not be OK with it. It can be a bit of a nomadic life, so decide if that suites you.
There are some amazing Museum Studies programs out there, and due to their connections within the field and the internship opportunities you have access to, some of them have a reputation as basically feeding into museum jobs at renowned museums. But don’t stop there. Take business classes. Take marketing classes. Take all kinds of science and history classes. The first job title people think of when you say “museum career” curator. It’s always curator. There are dozens of other jobs to be done in a museum, though, and every kind of museum needs a different combination of skills. Look into Arts Administration programs. Learn web design, Photoshop, and programming languages. Take chemistry, if you’re interested in conservation. Audit classes if you need to, take them online, or through your community center or junior college. You don’t neccessarily need to get a certificate from Harvard - you just need to develop a skillset, and there are lots of ways to do that. The future of the museums lies in digital engagement, and every museum is going to need someone on board who understands what that means.
5. Don’t be smug
This is an important one, and something that was often repeated in the submissions people sent in.
Get your job done. Get your hands dirty, chip in, and do what you can to make life easier for your colleagues. Don’t look at any task as “beneath you.” I don’t care how many PhDs you have or peer-reviewed journals you’ve contributed to: knit your bit and help out where you can. Labels need updating? Write them. Mats need cutting? Grab an exacto. See a gallery educator with a group that’s gone Lord of the Flies and the chaperones have vanished? Go track them down and help round-up the anklebiters. All work is honest work, many hands make light work, etc. etc. Some museums have large staffs with multiple departments, working like gears in a clock to keep things going. Other museums have 3 people, with 9-12 jobs each. No matter what kind you work in, carry your own weight and help others when you can. Just like you should be doing in your personal life. However, don’t over extend yourself. See the next item…
6. Have other interests, and remember your family and friends.
You will make some of the best friends of your life while working at a museum. It’s natural; some days I see my coworkers for 12, 14, 16+ hours a day and see my husband for maybe 2. Or less. The people I’ve met at the museums where I’ve worked will be in my heart the rest of my life. I love my colleagues- this silly blog was born out of a tipsy night of inside jokes (which apparently you all get despite the inside-ness).
That said, do not let a museum become your Whole Life. This place is going to take up your nights, weekends and holidays more often than you might realize. That’s part of this game. You are going to feel a parental obligation towards your museum and your projects. You will lose sleep worrying about it. But you still need to check it at the door, and make time for your family, friends and personal interests. Read books that have nothing to do with work. Go to concerts that would never happen in your museum. Get out of there every once in a while. Take your vacation days and don’t check your email, and stay home when you’re sick. You will burn out if you turn your life over to a museum. The museum will not burn down while you’re gone, no matter what your imagination tells you.
I see this happening most often with people early in their careers, too afraid to look away from the job long enough to enjoy their own lives. And those are the people who burn out and change careers after two or three years. It’s not a long-haul way to operate. You cannot live and breathe a museum. You can only live and breath your life.
You can. You really really can. It’s hard work, it’s lean sometimes, but keep your head on straight and push through doubts and anxiety. It’s worth it, I promise.
So that’s what I got for you. Please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments, and add your advice for the next generation of museum professionals here.
The 2015 Met Gala is to be called "Chinese Whispers.”
My hot take:
In case you were never a child, or are not from the US, “Chinese Whispers” is also the frowned-upon title of a children’s game (which most US kids know as Telephone).
Maybe the phrase is less hot button in other countries, but it’s considered quite insensitive to use that phrase in the US. Since the Met is a US museum, I get to make fun of them for this, along with the rest of the internet.
I’d love to be in the room when the Met Gala people Google ‘Chinese Whispers’ and realize their theme is a racist name for a childhood game.— Jenny Johnson (@JennyJohnsonHi5)September 13, 2014
The 2015 Met Gala theme is “Chinese Whispers” because that definitely won’t be a racist disaster: http://t.co/CwbmQbHDpm— Styleite (@Styleite)September 12, 2014
Why was the game called Chinese Whispers, and why is that usage racist? Because back in the day, the word “Chinese” was used as a synonym for being unclear or being incomprehensible, and a “Chinese Whisper” basically means “to gossip.” Wow, what a flattering umbrella underwhich we will celebrate a culture!
And there’s like, no chance, at all, that this will turn into a massive culturally insensitive sideshow, right?
Right. That would never happen.
Counterpoint: ”Chinese whispers” can refer to repeated tellings of a story, each one differing slightly from the previous, so that the final version has only a slight resemblance to the original. The Gala will celebrate how Chinese aesthetics have influenced art and design.
My point: You’re celebrating cultural appropriation, not the culture. Also, why is the full title of this thing "Chinese Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film and Fashion.” There are other Eastern cultures in Asia. Obviously the intent here to celebrate Chinese culture, but it’s dismissive to pretend they alone embody the culture of the east.
Counterpoint: SHUT UP
My Counterpoint: NO YOU SHUT UP
And so on. Because that’s how the internet works.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
1) Get a temperamental and notoriously vicious artist to agree to a minor schedule or layout adjustment…
2) wake up a sleeping, hangry crocodile without losing a limb or dying.
TRICKED YOU those are the exact same thing, and now you’re behind schedule, off track and, at best, missing a foot.
That time you announced to your group that the next stop on the tour will be the museum’s period room, and someone asked if men are allowed in there, or if it was only for women.